The Three Types of People Who Fight for ISIS
In February 2012, a young, beefy Egyptian named Islam Yaken took a shirtless selfie and posted it on a Facebook competitor called vk.com. The picture wouldn’t have attracted much attention outside his circle of Cairo friends, were it not for the photos of himself he tweeted two years later. In that time, the Wahlberg wannabe with tidy, cropped hair had transmogrified into a bushy-haired hipster with heavy-rimmed glasses—who had gone to fight for ISIS. The jihadi accessories in his new photos included a Kalashnikov, a sword, and a bucket of Shia heads.
When Yaken’s pictures went viral a month ago, they provoked some confusion about how this well-educated, urban gym-rat could so rapidly embrace a group known for its austere, backward-looking form of desert Islam. The same confusion reigns over the transformation of Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, the former stoner who rapped in London under the name L Jinny and is now a suspect in the murder of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.1 There is, of course, an obvious continuity between the Yaken who yanked his undies just below the pube-line to give a full glimpse of his abs and the narcissistic poseur now in Syria, as well as a thread of miscreance that runs through the life of Abdel Bary. But not all ISIS fighters are the type to have traded protein shakes and doobies for scimitars and explosive belts.
By now we’re starting to see an emerging taxonomy of the motivations of ISIS supporters. And as the types emerge, they reveal hints of ISIS’s vulnerability, and where its rapid expansion can be used against it
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Yaken and Abdel Bary, who appear to be maniacal killers with more taste for grindhouse than for Islamic jurisprudence, are exemplars of only one of three general types of ISIS fighter. Call them the Psychopaths. Skinner says the foreigners tend to be hyperviolent, and the indigenous fighters (and the local population who passively supports them) saner and more practical. One need merely look at Yaken’s sword-wielding photo to note its theatricality: The blade is a fantasy design, half hunting knife and half Chinese dao, with hooks, a teardrop-shaped hole, and serration that serve no function but to look cool. And that, of course, is the point. As men without significant military training—like most jihadis from Western or upper-class backgrounds—their main purpose is to create grotesque propaganda and to perform the low-skill role of blowing themselves up.[…]